The political evolution of SpinWatch’s David Miller

David Miller – originally a biology student – was drawn into the Glasgow University Media Group around 1985. The Media Studies at that time was a kind of refuge for radicals and would-be Marxists. In an era of social reaction the radicals retreated into their seminar rooms to analyse the ‘media bias’ that they felt had robbed them of victory in the halcyon days of seventies’ activism. There was no shortage of evidence that the 6 O’Clock news was biased. But the Glasgow University Media Group’s first error was to imagine that media bias explained the failure of the left wing challenge.

Waving a fist at the television set was a lot easier than facing up to the shortcomings in the left’s own appeal. Easier to study media bias than the weaknesses in the left’s own programme.

The University Rectors were all too happy to see their student radicals wile away their hours analysing news broadcasts in the eighties; so much better than see them making news in the seventies.

Mary Whitehouse, too, challenged what she saw as media bias

In their own way, the Glasgow University Media Group were the other side of the coin to Mary Whitehouse’s National Viewers and Listeners Association. Both read their own alienation from the mainstream as the perverse result of media bias, unwilling to admit that they had lost the argument.

In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher’s government tried to break up the social consensus that had governed British political life for most of the post-war period. It was a high-risk strategy that undermined the institutional bulwarks of social consensus. Thatcher and her ministers attacked the BBC, pillorying Director General Alasdair Milne and scorning his appeal to ‘balance’ – their could be no balance between British troops and their enemies, said the Tory attack dogs. (Mary Whitehouse – ridiculed in the seventies – was lauded by the Tories for showing up porn on the BBC.)

Like Mary Whitehouse, the Glasgow University Media Group had some success politicising broadcast media in the eighties. They seemed to be coming from a very different place, but their target was the same: impartial and balanced reporting was a myth. The Media Group’s studies of BBC coverage of the Miners’ Strike showed that camera angles, and the order in which footage was shown all added up to bias against the miners, for the government (see Greg Philo, Seeing & Believing, Routledge, 1990, Chapter Six 132-155 – though it was in fact lawyer Gareth Pierce who first drew attention to the manipulation of the order of footage of the Orgreave picket, Guardian, 12 August 1985).

A weakness in the Group’s critical stance is that they identified bias as the issue. That meant that they could only criticise the media from the stance of an existing outlying group that would make the excluded view make sense. But what, in the end were the GUMG asking? That the BBC live up to its original promise of impartiality. In the words of the first ever Director General of the BBC in 1929:

If on any controversial matter the opposing views are stated with equal emphasis or lucidity there can at least be no charge of bias (Radio Times 30 November 1923).  

Reith’s promise, set down in clause three of the 1954 Television Bill, had its limits. ‘Opposing views’ meant in effect, opposing views in parliament. Those outside the consensus, like the IRA, or Egypt’s Nasser-revolution were not reported – not unless they were supported by MPs inside.

By the 1980s, the consensus on which ‘impartiality’ rested was breaking down. The GUMG struggled to make the case for other voices to be heard, because the powers-that-be were doing their best to redefine who was in and who was out. In the end that was a political struggle, which media coverage only reflected.

Discussing news coverage of a demonstration against the Falklands war in May 1982, the GUMG said that, although Newsnight gave what they saw as a fair account: ‘…the picture on the main bulletins [was] rather different, giving lower numbers for the turn-out and stressing the “revolutionary communist” and “left-wing” participation….Only one interview [was] shown in the reports – and it [was] put to [Tony] Benn rather than to any of the other speakers at the rally (who included a bishop, a Social Democrat, and an Argentine ex-political prisoner).’ (War and Peace News, p133)

The truth was that the demo was small, because most the Labour leader Michael Foot was right behind the war. It was left to the Revolutionary Communist Party to make up the numbers. But the GUMG did not want people to see that, and they would have preferred to see churchmen interviewed than Tony Benn. What was this but an appeal to the left to moderate its language, and try to pitch its ideas more towards the centre-ground? The GUMG was adapting to the right-wing current like much of the rest of the left.

Greg Philo’s critical points about news coverage were in the end secondary to the real balance of forces in society. With the left on the backfoot, the points looked shrill. They also shored up the idea that the truth rested on whose side you were on. Fighting over the right account of things would set the record. Though later they resisted the end point, Philo, and with him David Miller, were pushing Media Studies towards relativism.

One thing that the Glasgow group clearly shared with the National Viewers and Listeners Association was the view that the media was a corrupting influence on the good folk. Their strong belief in the ill effects of media would lead to a big falling-out with the English media students led by Martin Barker and Julian Petley.

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